I feel you, man. The D&D-style of weapon damage is not my favorite.
A weapon in the real world is designed to efficiently transfer energy from the wielder or firing mechanism to the victim or target with the goal to kill or destroy. Weapons that don’t efficiently kill are relegated to the oddities case at the museum.
It doesn’t make much sense that a poignard or pistol does less damage than a sword. All three are remarkably efficient instruments and were in wide-spread use during our period. I would even venture a guess that knives killed more people than swords did, sheerly on their prevalence alone. Or rocks for that matter. The French people loved to toss rocks, bricks and paving stones at anyone who raised their ire. Very efficient weapon those rocks!
However, our system is not a probabilistic statistical model of physics or anthropological data. We’re making a game here. And in the game, the damage codes need to be scoped to measure our area of study. For us, based on Moldvay D&D, that area is armed skirmishes with four to eight participants per side taking place on city streets or dungeon tunnels. In this narrowed scope, the numbers do clarify a bit. My poignard and pistol are a bit less formidable when confronting a wall of swords, muskets and pikes. The potential for damage to the opposing side is less, which we represent in the stacked damage codes.
That said, damage codes can’t be discussed without discussing hit points. When I build a damage system in a game, I create a baseline human character. In Burning Wheel, it was a human with B3 abilities. In M&M, I decided that if a poignard or pistol did 4 points of damage maximum, then most people needed to have 4 hit points or less. With 4 hit points, landing a poignard strike would kill 25% of the time (barring bonuses). Compared to crime and battle statistics, 25% of death is wildly high. Murder with a knife often takes many, many blows to do the deed. But in our case, we’ll mitigate the deadliness with a to-hit roll. If most folks have a 10 Strength, then we can cut the potential damage output to about half—13% if knife wounds will prove deadly on a strike. Still very high, but a number that works well enough in the context of a four hour session during which many rolls will be made.
Fortunately, that’s the not the final part of the equation. Reaching zero hit points in M&M doesn’t mean instant death. Instead, it triggers a roll on the Mortal Coil or Hors de Combat table. So 13% of people struck by a poignard or pistol will fall down, stunned. Some of those people will eventually recover, but be forever changed in mind or body. A small percentage of those people will not recover—struck dead where they stood.
Morale also factors in! Very few of us will fight to the death. When faced with our mortality, we often rapidly rethink our actions. M&M reflects this as asking for Sang Froid tests when certain conditions are met. Being knocked down to 1 HP is one of those conditions. So another 13% of knife attacks will trigger this condition. If most folks have a S-F of 1, then 83% of those folks (about 11% of knife attack victims) will be required to check their morale.
Based on that logic, 24% of knife strikes in M&M should result in a deleterious effect beyond just HP loss. One in four—roughly—seems like good odds for the attacker. I certainly wouldn’t want to undertake any operation for which I only had a 76% chance of coming out unscathed…
The last factor in the structure of damage codes is the hit point distribution of player characters. You’ll note that most lifepaths give less hit points than one would find in Moldvay classes. There’s a lot of classes that start with 2d2, and only a few that start with 2d4. And once you start leveling, your increases range from 0-2, rather than adding a new roll for your starting benefit.
Even so, a typical 3rd level starting character has some resilience. 2d2 (2.5 HP) + [0-1]*2 (1 HP) + Constitution bonus (.26 HP avg) = 3.76 average starting hit points. Their additional levels ensures that they’re not in the 2 HP range, which would make them very fragile. A soldier gets significantly more HP: 2d4 (4.5 HP) + [1-2]*2 (3 HP) + Con (.26 HP)= 7.76 HP to start on average.
Soldiers are clearly the problem. A knife strike or pistol shot won’t threaten them with death unless it’s a critical hit. So why not adjust their HP down and flatten everyone to 2d2 plus level plus Con? Well, niche protection, that’s why. And tradition, I suppose. But I want to reduce the chance that my erstwhile Athos falls to an enemy ball before he gives his first thrust. I want that member of the Cardinal’s Guard to wing him, forcing Athos to fight even more desperately once they cross swords. It just feels better, even if it isn’t realistic in terms of the dynamics of a blackpowder pistol shot.
And to further expand on tradition, it’s in the bones. We built on Moldvay, so we had a certain toolkit to work with. I took my best shot at fidelity and credibility with those tools, but I freely admit that it is an imperfect solution.